Shocker bats come alive for dramatic comeback NCAA Regional win over Nebraska softball

The bats woke up at just the right time for the Wichita State softball team to win a dramatic opening game in the NCAA Stillwater Regional.

Wichita State rallied from five runs down, then escaped a bases-loaded jam in the final inning to survive with a 6-5 victory over Nebraska after the clock ticked past midnight and Friday spilled into Saturday morning.

“We just wanted to make it as exciting as we could to keep everybody awake since it was so late,” WSU head coach Kristi Bredbenner joked.

A loss would have banished WSU to the loser’s bracket in the double-elimination tournament and forced the Shockers to win four straight games to advance. Instead, a win in the all-important first game sets up a rematch between the Shockers (44-10) and No. 6 national seed Oklahoma State (42-14) in Saturday’s 2 p.m. game.

If WSU defeats the Cowgirls for a third time this season on Saturday, then the Shockers would need just one win in Sunday’s regional championship series to advance to the program’s first Super Regional. A loss would bring on an elimination game with the season on the line against either Nebraska or UMBC at 7 p.m. Saturday.

But for the little time the Shockers have to rest following their opening win, they’ll savor the feeling of accomplishment from their seventh NCAA victory in program history and perhaps their most dramatic. It also marked WSU’s third win over Nebraska (34-21) this season.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily coming down off (the high of victory), I think it’s about bringing it to the next game,” said WSU All-American shortstop Sydney McKinney, who broke her own program record for single-season hits with hit No. 99 to tie the game. “We do our best when we have that type of energy, we string together hits with that energy, so I think carrying that over to (Saturday) is going to be huge.”

The late-season slump that saw WSU’s explosive offense score just four runs in its final three games — two of which resulted in upset losses — seemed to carry over to the postseason. The Shockers could only muster a pair of infield singles in the first four innings against Nebraska ace Courtney Wallace, the same pitcher WSU shelled in a 10-1 run-rule victory in Wichita on March 11.

Meanwhile, Nebraska jumped on WSU starter Lauren Howell to build an early 5-0 lead. Mya Felder crushed a 2-run home run over the center-field fence, then dribbled a 2-RBI single past first base in the third inning.

“We looked like we were afraid to lose the game a little bit,” Bredbenner said.

“We’ve been putting so much pressure on ourselves to execute our game plan, I think we needed to take a break and just let it happen. I teased (hitting coach Elizabeth Economon) in the fifth inning that I was going to take every bat out of the box and throw them out in the infield and tell them to wake up. Because they’ve been asleep for a while.”

Freshman Alex Aguilar did well to stabilize the Shockers and bought her offense the time it needed to snap out of its funk.

The comeback was seemingly sparked by Bredbenner, who altered the game with a pair of successful challenges. The first came in the top of the fourth inning and took off a run for Nebraska, as the umpire deemed Sami Hood’s relay throw to home plate had given catcher Lainee Brown enough time for the tag. The second came in the bottom of the fifth inning when an inning-ending out call on a bang-bang play at first base was overturned when Addison Barnard was ruled safe.

Two batters later, senior Zoe Jones capitalized on the second chance with a deep shot that was about a foot away from sailing over the center-field fence for a grand slam. Instead, Jones’ 2-RBI hit trimmed WSU’s deficit to 5-2 and brought the team to life.

“Those were momentum-killers for them and momentum-boosters for us,” Bredbenner said of the reversals. “I don’t know if they were the spark that woke the bats up, but the bats became alive after those situations happened. We haven’t won a challenge all year. We’ve probably tried 15 times, so you question if you should even do it. But I felt pretty confident that those would go in our favor.”

The back-half of the lineup initiated the rally in the bottom of the sixth inning, as Hood reached on an error, freshman Taylor Sedlacek singled through the left side and then Hood scored on a single back up the middle by pinch-hitter Bailey Urban. Krystin Nelson, the No. 9 batter, scored another run with a sacrifice fly to left field to trim the deficit to 5-4.

That brought up McKinney, the two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, who delivered in the clutch once again for the Shockers with a RBI double off the wall to tie the game.

“We just kept believing in each other,” McKinney said. “Having that belief that the next person is going to do it. It took us a while, but I think we stuck to our plan and it finally paid off.”

After Addison Barnard earned a walk, Lauren Lucas continued to be WSU’s RBI machine with her 60th run drive in with a single back up the middle to put the Shockers in front for good.

But WSU had to survive some sweaty moments in the top of the seventh inning, as Nebraska loaded the bases with one out. Bredbenner had Howell warming up in the bullpen, but trusted the freshman to close out the game.

Aguilar delivered, as the next Nebraska hitter, Katelyn Caneda, grounded to hood at second base and the fellow freshman fired home for her second put-out at home of the game to prevent the game-tying run. The game ended when Nebraska’s Caitlynn Neal harmlessly popped out to McKinney at shortstop.

Afterward, Aguilar said it reminded her of her eight-inning, complete-game gem she tossed to help the Shockers take down the No. 3-ranked Cowgirls on the very same field in Stillwater. On that night, Aguilar also worked her way out of jams with runners on base to help WSU win a 3-1 game.

“Fortunately for me, I have been in this situation before with the OSU game that was here before,” Aguilar said after her first NCAA appearance. “The pressure felt the same. I was trying to keep calm. Honestly, I have eight great people in the field and I had Zoe, Syd, Krystin in my ear telling me that I could do it. With those people on the field, it’s pretty hard to fail. I believed in myself and I believed in my defense and we got it done.”